Last we heard, Elvis Costello was about to turn into Cole Porter. You could picture him fattening up on caviar in a Park Avenue penthouse as he branched away from his rock sound to devise the dense, tortuous, sophisticated pop of 1982's Imperial Bedroom.
Now, though, he's slimmed down and donned a heavy coat and seaman's cap, and he peers from the cover of Punch the Clock through wire-rimmed glasses,looking like a Russian intellectual in exile. Ivan Kostellov, anyone?
Unfortunately, the look on the cover doesn't signal lean and hungry music inside. As the image does suggest, Punch the Clock is more rock-oriented than Bedroom. But while it's not Park Avenue, it's not a back-alley crawling with rock 'n' roll's mystery and potential, either. More like a normal, suburban street where not much happens.
Costello's return to his earlier, familiar style has the air of a retreat, and it's incompatible with the restless, probing spirit that fueled his music and made him rock's most provocative malcontent. Instead of forcing you to grapple with his songs here, he taps them past you like croquet balls. They hardly demand attention, let alone involvement.
Still, half a Costello is worth a dozen Men at Rest, and even when he's on automatic pilot his basic formula yields some quality moments: "Everyday I Write the Book" opens with the hanging piano chords and falsetto wail of a lost Temptations classic; Motown also rears its head in the Supremes-style string buildup of "T.K.O. (Boxing Day)" and in the gospel-soul bounce of "The World and His Wife."
Minor pleasures, and even the best songs seem like minor exercises rather than the white-hot debris of romantic and political upheavals. Costello's singing lacks his customary driven edge, and his new production team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstandley provides a flat sound, without the sparkling finish and dynamic inner workings of Costello's best tracks.
The man who brilliantly dissected life in terms of "Armed Forces" appears to have declared neutrality. It doesn't suit him, and the sooner he rejoins the fray the better.